Saturday, 24 July 2010

Paul Johnson talks with Nick Nowicki at his studio in Poplar, East London

PJ: I grew up as an oil painter, graduated from Glasgow in a painting school, but I never really wanted to pick up a brush, or start mixing paint. I was always trying to work out how I could construct a painting; how I could handcraft it. I started to formulate glass-paint and spray it onto cut-out pieces of paper, which I used to build up collages. I don’t really know what I’m going to get until I start putting it together. There’s a slight uncertainty with spraying, because you don’t have complete control over spray. As your consciousness kicks in, colours change and shift with your mood, so if someone ends up with a green chin for some reason, I allow that to be part of the making, as opposed to ‘Oh no, that’s gone wrong.’ So, in a way, I do feel a bit like a painter at times.

NN: The drawing of the soldier looks like you’ve painted it with watercolour daubs.

PJ: Some artists go through a process of simplifying things as they work through their career. I’ve found what I’ve done is complicate things and added more and more. They’ve ended up becoming more layered and more ‘painterly’ through the making. This green bit is tracing paper that I’ve sprayed and then placed on top, and the rest is sprayed by sectioning parts off. If it’s not right, it’s sanded away. Glass-paint has a stiffness, but I use it so lightly it’s almost like a dusting. If this was a watercolour and you didn’t like a certain section, or if you wanted to shift it once you’d put the paint down, obviously you’d be adding water or you’d be using a sponge, but for me, I’ll be getting out the sandpaper. It has similar possibilities where I can eradicate or keep things in. Again, it’s like a constructed watercolour. Physicality always returns in the work at every stage.

NN: When I first saw your work in 2003, you were physically covering up your collages with red polypropylene.

PJ: At that time, I was trying to contain physical worlds, and it felt like the process needed to be contained as well. But I had backed myself into a corner. I thought, ‘What next? Do I just stay here, hermetically sealed, or do I try to navigate my way out?’ I remember an artist coming to my studio and he put me on the spot. He looked at my collages and said ‘Why would you want to cover them up?’ I think strangely that comment triggered something I was already thinking, but wasn’t yet prepared to do. Like any artist, you make dumb decisions sometimes, and I made a series of yellow ones, and a series of clear ones, and the collage was still all sealed in. But the polypropylene had become an effect, as opposed to an integral part of making an image. Then I made a piece called Girl that felt integral, all the components felt right, and it only had one bit of plastic on it. It had elements of the red polypropylene series but felt like a whole different beast. The discs, that had been sheeny and covered, suddenly allowed their physicality to be seen. There’s still an element of containment, but it’s about her visual containment. For me, this was the key piece to move on and bring in elements that I was interested in.

NN: Talking about the presence of the poly-propylene, that's a strong artistic presence. You were very present within that work, as the keeper at the gate. And you are still present once that's gone, because of the way that it's been visibly crafted. I think you are strongly involved in my perception of the work.

PJ: I think that’s definitely a point. I was interested in that sense of clarity; when you think of something and you have the sudden urge to physically make it. I love that intention and I think the handmadeness of what I do, and the level of labour, speaks of the obsessional. Potentially, there are so many easier ways to make an image, and I end up giving myself a hard time. My Dad joked, ‘It’s probably ‘cause you’re Catholic, Paul. It’s probably just your upbringing.’ That I feel I need to go through this cathartic kind of thing each time.

NN: Could you go into more detail about finding the images, and the compulsion to make a particular image into a portrait?

PJ: It’s normally about being switched on, and looking, but the trick is not being conscious of looking. So, throughout your day, you’re susceptible to seeing things, whether it’s a bit of newspaper on the floor, an image on the internet, television, or an image of someone I’ve seen and sneakily taken their portrait. I put the found image on the studio wall and it lingers for five or six months. I keep looking at it on a day-to-day basis, and normally it’s this funny process of there’s-something-about-you-which-I’m-unsure-about, which turns into a compulsion to make an image of that person. But if I forget that it’s there then I just leave it.

It’s a slow process, and maybe a head will come from somewhere, a uniform or costume might be sourced from somewhere else, and then I’ll start to piece them together using drawings and photocopying. Fictional things then happen, and it becomes this person whom I try to present as if they are real.

NN: Because you’ve spent so long lovingly crafting them, it feels to me like you love these people.

PJ: Wow!

NN: But in actual fact you don’t know them. They don’t even exist.

PJ: No. There is a distance. I found an image on a boat in India, and after I’d made it into a portrait, The Lookout, people were saying ‘Who is it?’ and they wanted me to describe him, as if he was someone I’d had some sort of contact with, but the strength of the work is that there’s, hopefully, a mystery. That is something I’m interested in. How much do you believe and how much don’t you believe, and the space between.

NN: Is it a literal translation of the photo?

PJ: The photo was black and white, quite an old photograph in a Victorian frame. I’m projecting colours onto him, as if to give him some sort of vibrancy - a lot of images I’ve used are black and white or drawn from a photocopy and I add colour - to make you think about him as someone potentially real, or to give him a feeling of something quite current. I don’t want him to feel like he’s a Victorian photograph, or he’s from another century. His hairstyle and beard seem to allow him to be in this current day. I picked up another few photographs, and the rest looked like they were from a particular period of time, whereas he seemed timeless, as if he could exist then and now. When they are stuck in an era that’s when I lose interest. If I can convert them into feeling present, rather than past, they become familiar, as if you could tap into what that person is feeling, or the thought-pattern behind the eyes.

I’m hoping some sort of fragility is communicated through the image. And also I have actually described them in the past as being a sort of family of people, not in a traditional sense, but in the sense of disparate people coming together, through some sort of shared belief.

NN: Like a cult?

PJ: Yeah, and the work went through a point where the cultish element started to creep in, but now I’m more interested in the work being ritualistic without the symbolism being directly placed upon it. Venus Passing The Sun might feel like a ritualistic object, but it’s not explicit. There’s an attempt to make it more suggestive.

NN: Are you using your imagination more?

PJ: I think so. I’m just allowing things to seep in. Maybe I’m going through another transition. You always evolve as an artist, you’re always sort of moving. For instance, with this most recent one, I had the title in my head for years. It’s quite a tragic title, Portrait of Someone Slowly Drowning, and I remember thinking how would you go about visualizing that title. At the same time, I was interested in how I could pattern the surface around a portrait, but without it simply being some sort of decorative device. Instead of the background being blank, I wanted to fill it, so it’s almost as intense as the actual person, almost as if it’s whirling or swirling round that person. And in a practical way, I literally made him in bits. His mouth and his chin I didn’t really like, and in a spontaneous way I put him on in a temporary way without the bottom half, and instantly thought the image was enough. It feels like this portrait is almost being sucked into some kind of mental schema that’s floating around him, whereas in my previous work, it’s always a symbol or something physical floating over, something that’s real and tangible, but not actually there. This feels much more fluid. It’s got this crazed pattern, but it’s uncertain, and it’s clear, and you think you’re looking at particular things. Someone described the lower half as being like some sort of water formation, or some kind of crustacean, and I like that it’s suggestive, but doesn’t become definite.

NN: The abstract part could be part of him, like a body under a sheet, or it could be seen as a nervous system.

PJ: Ah yeah, something biological. I think that’s where the collages are starting to head. There’s openness to interpretation as opposed to a definite kind of badge, or symbol, or object floating over the top of someone. All artists make a body of work, and then they just reach that point of ‘Mmmm, what’s that one about?’ It feels like a bit of a jolt, but that’s really exciting. This feels like another evolution, a personal evolution with making these collages, and it’s good to let them grow.

Paul Johnson is showing in 'Newspeak: British Art Now, Part Two' at the Saatchi Gallery, London, 27 Oct 2010 - 6 Jan 2011 and 'BigMinis' - fetishes of crisis at CAPC Museum of Contemporary Art, Bordeaux, 18 Nov 2010 – 27 Feb 2011.

Images courtesy of the artist and Ancient & Modern, London.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Michael Ajerman talks to Alli Sharma at his East London studio

AS: Is the watercolour from life?

MA: Yeah, I’ve been doing these on and off for a while. I had an instructor in New York but I only really did it seriously in about 2002 at the Slade. Some people like the watercolours, others like the oils, but over the years, they’re beginning to become one.

AS: Is it that you can explore something about materiality in the watercolours?

MA: It’s the fluidity of the material and colour and not really having the ability to mess around. I don’t really know the history of watercolours very well. I mean I know there’s a huge history in Britain and I know what a Turner or Constable watercolour looks like. I like doing them. I find them incredibly special and I really have to focus because there’s so much going on at one time.

AS: Is the history of painting important to you?

MA: It is. I mean I know it. I had a weird neighbour when I was growing up in New Jersey who showed me old art documentaries. When I was 8, everyone else was doing Martin Luther King or Thomas Jefferson reports for school. I was doing Michelangelo, talking about him cutting up bodies to figure out how things work. I was a weird kid.

AS: Do you still make discoveries?

MA: I do, but I’ve also begun to notice that certain aspects of work by artists that I like has changed. Things seem different now and I don’t know why. Albums that I’ve listened to for a really long time also sound different. I still make discoveries in strange places. Recently, I’ve been more interested in just going out there and seeing what comes my way than a premeditated research on something, like it’s a sign. There was a really big Otto Dix show in New York where I saw these two great paintings of a woman and a child. The first one looked like a brown Mary Cassatt and the other like something painted by Charles Addams who did the Addams Family stuff. It was the same year, the same model, but I was blown away by the scope of the works.

AS: You mean the different styles?

MA: No, just completely different sensations. One seemed to have the parental empathy of Cassatt, but with the other one, you could almost hear the Addams Family theme tune. I had been thinking about doing something with a good friend of mine, Ivan, who’s just become a father. He lives in New York and now has a son, Jonah, so we met up I did some sketches. Just cause I usually draw Ivan when I see him, and this was an event, he’s now a ‘Dad.’ Then on my next trip to New York I went to Zwirner gallery and in the back office they had this Alice Neel painting of Neel’s husband and her first son. It’s a bizarre painting. The partner’s face was really heavily done with this one long mark for the eyebrows, the nose and then back up again. The child’s face almost scrubbed out, which is kind of like stuff you would see now. I thought, it’s a sign! I should do the paintings of Ivan and Jonah when I get back to London. So stuff like that.

AS: Making connections with things going on in your head? I was wondering about your subject matter. You paint the things that are going on around you in your life?

MA: I am aware of what I do here, but it got to the point where I was really not in the mood to go to the dark for a little while, I needed a break. I also want to keep it fresh. The heavy ones are mentally exhausting. I’m not saying that the ones of the father and son are not exhausting but it’s just different.

AS: Why are the heavy ones exhausting, because the subject matter is very close to you?

MA: Sometimes it is and sometimes not. I can put too much in, of my feelings and stuff, it’s been pointed out to me pretty clearly but I think it’s the same if someone is writing or doing an intense scene in a film or something like that. A tension starts building up.

AS: It’s an emotional relationship?

MA: It is, but at the same time, if it wasn’t fun, I wouldn’t do it. Well, like Upside Down in the Transition gallery show. There’s a woman dangling, you don’t see her legs and there’s a lot of ambiguity in that painting. People have said to me ‘I don’t like it’. I say ‘I don’t think you’re supposed to like it’, then other people do like it. I’m trying to make paintings with feeling and power, with a presence to hold up to everything else, like billboards, magazines, Piccadilly Circus and you know, everything else (makes hand gestures like scrolling through an iPhone).

AS: The way you handle the paint looks like a balancing act, it looks intense and concentrated. The paint could have been slapped on, but you know it hasn’t, you know it has been controlled and it’s slippery and difficult.

MA: I call it aggressive surface control. The marks can sometimes be aggressive. At the same time, I like what Corinna Spencer wrote on her blog, that some of the marks are pulled slow, to get certain effects. I don’t like the word ‘dragging’ but you’re gliding through.

AS: So it’s not necessarily a fast way of working.

MA: If it’s working wonderfully, it’s fast, then there are times when it creeps really slow. The conclusion of a piece is usually two or three marks interplaying, ricocheting onto each other, creating some kind of sensation, usually. The most important thing is trying to keep open to things, accepting things that don’t happen in the normal way and moving with that. There’s this idea that the mistake is not the mistake. The mistake is what comes after. So if something is done which is a little bit odd, it’s what is done to compliment or aggravate that afterwards to verify whether it was a mistake.

AS: The response?

MA: Yeah, the response is more important than the ‘oh god’ moment.

AS: So do you know when to leave something?

MA: Well that’s hard. There are times when I’ve run out of the studio. Because you get this moment when you really have to accept what you’ve done and it takes a while because you have this idea in your head of what you want to do and sometimes you get really close to it but sometimes the idea of accepting something is really hard.

AS: When you start a piece do you have a strong idea of what it’s going to look like?

MA: I have an idea, but even the drawings are never close and also things that are planned out too much always look really dead to me. I stopped doing that. That way of working is not interesting to me any more.

AS: If you’ve worked it out already, there’s no working out left to do.

MA: There are people who want and demand that control. For me, the most interesting ones I do are where everything is on an equal level, meaning that any part of the picture can be pushed, pulled or re-adjusted in a delicate or aggressive manner at any given time and not to be precious about a specific part and realise that it is the whole thing that is really important. I mean some of my marks are aggressive and some of my marks are calmer, there are definitely certain types of approaches that I’ve been working with for the past couple of years and that might expand or contract. But the thing is I mostly just think about the colour. The marks.

AS: You use a particular shade of dirty purple.

MA: I thought it was from watching Purple Rain too much. I found this purple and I really like it. It’s in jars over there. I make some slight adjustments to it. The colour range breathes in and out depending on the imagery. For a while there were reds, yellows and deep sienna brown to depict a late night electric light.

AS: They feel really close.

MA: I used to work night shift at bars and restaurants. Those times are great because when going home at night everything seems a lot easier to see. It’s tonal, not chromatic. I really responded to the red colour range. For a while it was clunky then I became more conscious of controlling it. I liked the red because it seemed easy to lose control of it and I liked that idea.

AS: Do you limit your palette?

MA: I remember at University in New York, you’re palette looked like a freight train. I think it’s that student idea that if you have five different reds and four different blues, it will make it better. God, what a mistake that was. Limitations are good. I’ll shift something or change the tone but it usually starts from a compressed amount, and a decent amount of it. Even in the small paintings, if you mix a tiny amount and you put it down then that’s it, the mileage of that colour is over. If you mix more of that colour you can make that same mark or ten more like it to do something else in the painting.

AS: It makes sense, so you can change things. You’re not fixed.

MA: It’s important for me to have the ability to move from one part of the surface to another very quickly. That can mean the colour range or making sure that there is an amount of pigment to physically do that and that’s only done by preparing, preparing preparing.

AS: Some of the paintings are on aluminium.

MA: Metal is pretty awesome.

AS: Because it slides?

MA: It’s like butter in a pan when it’s just going. It captures the marks much more differently than board, which is probably the closest.

AS: The pumpkin strikes me as a particularly American emblem, you don’t feel that about it?

MA: I don’t know if it’s a love poem for Americana but it is strange and comforting to see them around here in Oct/Nov. The pumpkin goes back to that colour range I was using, but they’re weird things; they’re meaty. I got a pumpkin and I grabbed my power drill and drilled holes in it. The cool thing was when I was working on it I had the candles inside the holes, so it has this vanitas feel to it. One of the candles went out.

AS: Yes, it’s just gone out, you can still smell it.

MA: It had gone out and I was really chasing it, it was a lucky couple of seconds.

AS: The portrait hung next to the other pumpkin. Is that an actual person.

MA: Yeah, that’s my friend Derek. We grew up together in New Jersey. He was coming through London. For a while it has been a nightmare working from direct observation in oils because I didn’t have the same type of control as working from non-direct observation. So I abandoned that approach. When Derek was here I thought I’d give it another shot. I remember how weird his jaw was and I never noticed it before. It was really bizarre.

AS: How long did it take?

MA: This was fast. The paintings take two hours to two years. There are people who don’t trust their working methods when it’s finished in a couple of hours. I want things to be as good as everybody else does but there are times when the first thought is the best thought.

AS: There is something very fresh about that way of working that seems to be undervalued.

MA: It’s weird because you get painters who talk about Eastern philosophy and Chinese Dynasty landscapes and they’re done like that. Yes, there’s a great deal of training and planning that goes into those types of things.

AS: I would imagine that when you’re working that fast, something must take over in the way that you are looking and working.

MA: I don’t think that kind of thing can be described verbally very well. You become so at one with the materials in a way that conventional human dialogue doesn’t really work. I think that can go for any type of creative impulse. It’s a weird thing because you are bombarded by someone who is sitting in front of you, someone that you have known for a long period of time so there’s a great deal going on cerebrally and optically, and now you’re at two very different places in your life, those days are gone but those parts of your brain are still flickering in a funny kind of way and I like working with all of that.

AS: It’s not just anyone’s head you’re painting.

MA: I know people who don’t want to know the model, they want the distance but it’s never been like that for me. That kind of dislocation from the subject matter really seems a waste of time. I’m interested in the people I paint, but I’m also picky about the people that I paint. I think it’s trying to use a language to try to investigate something that is close to you and seeing where it can go.

AS: Can you tell me about the painting Christelle.

MA: I’m very happy with it as an image. It’s a memorandum piece and I’ve never done anything like that but I think it works well. It was something I really needed to do. We spoke before about how do you make a painting, I had previous watercolours that I had done and old photographic imagery and stuff and I really went for it. At Slade, Bruce McLean used to say, ‘when you know you’re hitting it, you’re hitting it.’ You have this ten minute groove, and it doesn’t happen all the time, but when you’re in it you’re in it and you just go. It was weird finishing this thing because I felt I was hitting it better than I’d ever done before but at the same time I really felt like I was losing my mojo with every hit. It was really bizarre like I was really in it but after each volley, my strength kept going down and then I don’t know if it ended because there was nothing left to me or nothing left to do in the painting, I just remember it stopped.

AS: So when you were talking about an intense period of working, this was what you were dealing with?

MA: I consider it intense. I come in here and I see where it all goes. I’m trying to stay open for things to shift and change but I don’t really know where it goes. I can try and will things and I do, but there’s really only so much, I’m not interested in choking it. That’s just boring.

Michael Ajerman can be seen at Transition Gallery until 11 July.